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Closer option Leone scoreless in Cards debut

Matheny: Data suggests right-hander is 'a guy who can get big outs'
MLB.com @JoeTrezz

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Cardinals' bullpen picture is so stuffed with potential late-inning candidates, perhaps the best method for keeping track of them all is the same way manager Mike Matheny plans to roll them out this spring: in groups based on service time and status.

The Cardinals' first few spring games saw the auditions of the young guys, prospects Jordan Hicks and Ryan Helsley. The most seasoned veterans -- Luke Gregerson, Tyler Lyons, and eventually Brett Cecil -- will have their debuts in games to come. Then there is an intermediary group made up of pre-arbitration-eligible relievers with big arms who could see their stocks rise significantly this spring.

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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Cardinals' bullpen picture is so stuffed with potential late-inning candidates, perhaps the best method for keeping track of them all is the same way manager Mike Matheny plans to roll them out this spring: in groups based on service time and status.

The Cardinals' first few spring games saw the auditions of the young guys, prospects Jordan Hicks and Ryan Helsley. The most seasoned veterans -- Luke Gregerson, Tyler Lyons, and eventually Brett Cecil -- will have their debuts in games to come. Then there is an intermediary group made up of pre-arbitration-eligible relievers with big arms who could see their stocks rise significantly this spring.

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Two of the members of that group debuted Tuesday in the Cardinals' 6-1 win over the Red Sox: Dominic Leone and Sam Tuivailala. Both righties threw well, each striking out two over a scoreless frame.

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Tuesday marked the spring debut for Tuivailala and the team debut for Leone, whom the Cardinals acquired in the trade that sent Randal Grichuk to Toronto. And while Tuivailala's stuff could help him pitch his way into a closer conversation down the line, it's Leone the club brought in to fight for the right to get those outs in the immediate future.

"We have a number of them, but he's definitely in that conversation," Matheny said. "This isn't a guy who hasn't been in the big leagues, so it's not like he doesn't know the league and the league doesn't know him, but I think there is more there. Smart guy. Knows his stuff, has good stuff. We're seeing all the data that points in the direction of him being a guy who can get big outs."

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That's what Leone wound up doing for the Blue Jays last season after they signed him off the waiver wire the offseason before. After posting a 6.33 ERA in 25 games for the D-backs in 2016, Leone broke out with Toronto, notching a 2.56 ERA in 65 appearances and finishing the season as the club's setup man.

Part of the key to Leone's success was cutting his slider usage nearly in half (think of him as the anti-Lyons) in favor of his cutter, which generated a 45.5 percent whiff-per-swing rate. That ranked third-highest among pitchers with at least 50 swings against their cutter, per Statcast™. Hitters mustered just a .269 xwOBA against Leone as a result, down significantly from the .356 mark against him the year before.

"He had good velocity, he always has," Matheny said. "But now he's using movement. And being smart with how he uses it. Like today, when he generated swings and misses with it."

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

St. Louis Cardinals, Dominic Leone